THE RECENT identification of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) as a recognisable medical condition will come as a relief to the thousands who say they have been made ill by timber treatment chemicals. Until now, their claims that they were all right until their homes were sprayed against woodworm have fallen on deaf ears, chiefly because the pesticides used are licensed as safe by the Health and Safety Executive. This is the official Government definition of "safe", so anyone who thinks the chemicals have made them ill must have got it wrong... right?

This is the cleft stick that Josephine Roberts found herself in three years ago after her landlords decided that the floorboards of her east London home needed spraying with permethrin. Jo, a 58-year-old former teacher, was leading an active healthy life, still working full-time, and getting up early at weekends to go hiking. But within days of the timber treatment she went down with nausea, a sore throat and streaming eyes; then she lost weight, began shaking and her muscles started wasting. Exhaustive tests showed no obvious medical problems, and her family doctor was nonplussed. Repeated courses of antibiotics and steroids only made things worse.

Ms Roberts' protests that it was the insecticide that had made her ill did not seem to fit in with the medical establishment's view of the world. Their logic was that permethrin is licensed for use by the HSE; therefore it is "safe"; therefore it could not be the cause of Jo's debilitating illness. And the fact that a previously healthy woman should have gone down with an unusual, unidentifiable disease immediately after her home was sprayed with permethrin? Just a coincidence, said the doctors. She must have mental problems. End of story.

Except it's not the end. There have been too many coincidences like this - thousands of healthy people knocked out of their stride following a visit from the timber- treaters. And last summer the HSE was told by Professor Nicholas Ashford, a health adviser to the United Nations, that pesticides probably represent the most serious environmental problem today in the industrialised world, and that permethrin - sprayed in around 5,000 British homes every week as a woodworm treatment - may be responsible for initiating MCS. The current about-face - as reported in the IoS last week - follows the publication of a report to the HSE by the Institute of Occupational Medicine which found that, although the evidence is not clear-cut, on balance MCS does exist.

So what happens now? Ms Roberts's landlords and the timber treatment company that did the work are continuing to disregard the HSE's recommendations that timber problems are better solved by traditional repair methods, and that chemical wood preservatives should be considered a last resort. I wait with keen interest to see whether the new findings will persuade them to change their practice.

The timber treatment industry has its own agenda, and writers in the latest issue of its trade journal assure readers that the chemicals are totally safe. Well, they would, wouldn't they?

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